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General Zia ul-Haq: The Second Coup

Zia ul-Haq

Mohammad Zia ul-Haq was chosen by Ali Bhutto to command the army in 1976. He was selected on the much the same basis as was Ayub Khan two and half decades before; i.e., that he did not belong to a major tribal-ethnic group and did not seem to have political ambitions. Zia was chosen over some more senior generals, probably in hopes that the passed-over generals would resent Zia's promotion and keep him in line out of jealousy. Bhutto was wrong, disastrously wrong.

Pervez Musharraf gives an insightful description of the events that led to Zia ul-Haq's deposing of Ali Bhutto.

"Throughout this period the political scene became more and more murky. Bhutto's despotic, dictatorial, suppressive rule led to nation-wide discontent. He set up a Gestapo-like force called the Federal Security Force (FSF) that was much hated and feared. His interpersonal dealings with friends, colleagues, and foes were so arrogant and degrading that people hated him but were too frighten to express their feelings openly. He set up concentration camps in a place called Dalai where opponents were 'fixed.' [...]

In this environment Bhutto ventured his first election, in 1977, to prove his legitimacy. The opposition formalized its unity into a political alliance called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Either Bhutto became unnerved during the election campaign or he was bent on winning two-thirds of seats in the National Assembly to enable him to change from a parliamentary system to a presidential system by making a constitutional amendment, as some of his former colleagues now assert. The ballot was grossly rigged== so rigged, in fact, that the people lost their fear and came out into the streets to protest, often violently. The PNA, of course, led the protest demonstrations. The army was called out in Lahore to quell the disturbances. Bhutto imposed martial law in Lahore, but the high court struck it down. On one occasion the situation got so far out of control that the army was ordered to fire at the demonstrating civilians. Three brigadiers commanding the troops were bold enough to refuse the orders to fire and opted to resign their commissions instead. These honorable and principled officers were brigadiers Ashfaq Gondal, Niaz Ahmed,and Ishtiaq Ali Khan, who were then retired from service.

Finally the situation came to a head. General Zia ul-Haq removed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government in July 1977. "

Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire, pp.60-51.

To gain control of Pakistan Zia only had to declare martial law. Zia then became the chief martial law administrator. Zia asserted that he had taken control of the government solely to administer new elections for the national and provincial offices. The March 1977 elections administered by the Bhutto government were held to be invalid. Zia promised new elections within ninety days but that promise was broken and the other repeated promises that replaced it.

In many ways Zia was a more skilled politician than Bhutto whom he deposed. Bhutto had the oratorical charisma but tended to lack finesse in achieving his goals. Zia could and did wield brute force but he also could achieve his ends through negotiation and compromise.

The most significant policy program of Zia ul-Haq was the Islamization of Pakistan. In 1978 he decreed that all law, old as well as new, must be consistent with Islamic sharia law. Religious conservative parties under Bhutto were campaigning for such principle. There was the complication that there were several interpretations of sharia law among Sunni religious groups and a drastically different interpretation for the Shi'ia. Under Islam those holding wealth are supposed to contribute alms to take care of the poor. Zia decreed that the government would collect these alms as a tax.

In 1979 Zia established sharia courts to try cases involving the violation of sharia law. Islamic punishments were to be imposed for crimes such as theft, drinking alcoholic beverages and adultery.

Charging and paying of interest is forbidden under sharia law and Zia started to convert the financial institutions of Pakistan to Islamic rules.

Although the principle that Pakistan law had to conform to sharia law was established in 1978 that was not enough for the religious fundamentalist. In 1985 there was an attempt to assert the principle that sharia law was more fundamental than the constitution. This in part would have prevented the verdicts of the sharia courts from being appealed to the regular courts including the supreme court of Pakistan. The legislature did not approve this principle, due in part, to the national and provincial legislatures being dismissed for other reasons. Zia tried to establish this principle by fiat in 1986 but the Zia's action did not come up for ratification by the national assembly while Zia still ruled the country.

Perhaps the most significant political change created by Zia was the Eighth Amendment to the constitution which gave the president the power to arbitrarily dissolve the National Assembly thereby removing the prime minister from power. This completely altered the power balance between the president and the prime minister.

Zia encouraged religious education and the creation of madarsas (religious schools). Islamic religious schools are not like Western religious schools in which the participants retreat from the world. Islamic religious schools are more like boot camps for Marines. The participants do memorize the Koran but they are basically being prepared to be soldiers for the religious leaders. This has been true for centuries.

Zia's program of Islamization fortunately did not involve the destruction of the little progress that had been made on the status of women.

Islam and sharia law are socially totalitarian. Not much technical or economic progress comes out of totalitarian societies. It takes societies with individual freedom to create the social progress that characterizes the modern world. Most of the Muslims of the world today would not exist without the medical advances that could only be achieved in a free society. Their great grandparents would have died in infancy.

The true God of human beings is not some tribal leader who worries about whether his subjects show obedience five times a day. The true God of humans is not a person but the phenomenon of communication, language and writing which creates human culture. Human culture is a dynamic evolving phenomenon. The social rules that made sense in the desert 1400 years ago do not make sense in the urban societies of the present. This is particularly true of the social regulations concerning women and the family.

Pervez Musharraf is critical of Zia ul-Haq and his period of rule.

"President Zia, in the 1980's, completed what Bhutto had started in the dying phases of his regime-- the total appeasement of the religious lobby. Zia did not have a political base or lobby. By hanging Bhutto, he turned Bhutto into a martyr and his political party--the PPP--into a greater force. Zia found it convenient to align himself with the religious right and create a supportive constituency for himself. He started overemphasizing and overparticipating in religious rituals to show his alignment with the the religious lobby. Even music and entertainment became officially taboo, whereas I am told that in private he personally enjoyed good semiclassical music. "

Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire, pp. 66-67.

The era of Zia with its tumultuous political and institutional changes, international as well as domestic, did not end until his assassination in 1988. Someone planted a device, either involving explosives or poison gas, on Zia's plane killing him and about thirty others including the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and most of the top generals of Pakistan.


Nine Unknown Men

Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by the Indian Emperor Asoka.